Today we talk to Asia Trail Masters Founder Kris Van de Velde about his brainchild, the current state of play, and his plans for the future. For anyone interested in travelling around Asia for cool trail races, this is a must read!
GR: Where did the idea of Asia Trail Masters come from?
KVDV: The idea began to develop in the late spring of 2014 as I was myself becoming more actively engaged with trail running events, and I was keen on creating my own little project. I noticed that more and more Asian trail running events were being established, yet there was basically no connection between them and very difficult to find race information unless you were a local. I thought of my own experience as a cyclist in Europe, racing like mad to score points in some Cup or Trophy and how addictive that was, and not just for me but for thousands of others - and decided to translate all that into something that befits trail running.
GR: So are you happy with the progress in its second year?
KVDV: Things really took off last summer, as more and more runners and organisers began to appreciate the rewards and benefits we can provide for them. At the beginning of this year several runners in different countries proclaimed their goal to win or score high in the Asia Trail Master championship, or complete our Grandmaster Quest, which is finishing six races of 70+ km in two calendar years. Trail running is a new sport, and that often shows still, but all in all we are positive and look forward to the future with confidence.
GR: Looking from the outside, the Asia Trail Masters Series looks much like the Ultra Trail World Tour but with a regional focus. Maybe you can comment on the main similarities and also differences?
KVDV: Yes, we focus exclusively on Asia, while the UTWT is obviously a global circuit. For sure, the UTWT has a bigger budget available to do what they do and, for commercial brands involved in the global trail industry, it is of course important that their own sponsored athletes do well in those races. But for many "general" Asian runners, races in Australia, Europe or the US are just too far away or too costly. In that sense, races on our Asia Trail Masters calendar are more accessible, and doing well in our series can also help aspiring Asian runners gain experience and media attention, which in turn can lead to sponsorships.
GR: Maybe you can give us some examples?
KVDV: Last year's Asia Trail Master champion, Arief Wismoyono from Indonesia, got endorsed by RaidLight after taking the championship, and China's Xu Xiutao is another young runner who came to prominence via our races.
GR: We are constantly seeing race directors pushing the boundaries and making races longer and tougher each year, but many runners are more than happy with the shorter formats. Would you consider a shorter league?
KVDV: Correct! The most frequent comment we have heard this spring is exactly that: runners wonder why every race has to be the toughest. It is almost as if organisers are even more obsessed with UTMB points than some of the runners, and often the extra kilometers or elevation gain add nothing to the course. So, I have indeed been contemplating a kind of short distance championship, yet I am not sure if we would be adding anything meaningful to the Asia Trail Master series then!
GR: But currently you actually combine the long ultras with the "shorter" races in the series?
KVDV: Indeed, our current calendar has several races of 42k or 50k as main events like UT Wenchuan or Trail Mapawa, which stand next to the giant ultras like Bromo Tengger Semeru Ultra or Malaysia Eco 100, and the points reward for the winners is either the same or similar. Often, you will see a higher quality field on a "shorter" 50 or 70k race because well-trained trail runners can absorb that distance on a regular basis.
GR: I guess in some ways it's like the Tour de France with all the variety then?
KVDV: Exactly, you have long and short mountain stages, hilly stages, short and crispy time trials and pancake flat stages. Winning Bromo Tengger Semeru can turn a runner into a public hero, just like a cyclist winning the alpine stage on top of Alpe d' Huez, but that does not mean they win the overall race. At the end of the day, the most complete athlete wins the prize. Two weeks ago Jan Nilsen easily defeated Manolito Divina in the mountainous TNF Philippines, but last weekend Divina ran nearly two hours away from Nilsen in less than 100km during the much flatter Malaysia Eco 100. Who is the better trail runner?
GR: One of the great things about Asia Trail Masters is the mix of countries and races. How do you decide which races are included in the series, and are you happy with your mix of countries?
KVDV: Initially, we approached event organisers but, this year, people have come to us and we have already had to politely decline some applications as we do not want to promote more than five races in one country. We have a few basic technical criteria that we impose, and we need to see the background of the organiser and the event in question. It is important for us that runners know that a race on the Asia Trail Master calendar is worth traveling for and taking part in, though, there are still negative surprises as trail running is still a young sport.
GR: So how does the mix look this year?
KVDV: In 2016 we will have races in 15 or 16 Asian countries, which is excellent. Korea and Japan are important additions this year, as are Brunei and East Russia. For some reason we have not been able to score a race in Thailand or India yet, although discussions for 2017 are ongoing.
GR: You've probably been to more different trail races in Asia than any other person. What is your favourite race and why?
KVDV: It is true that my team and I have been collecting a wealth of first-hand experiences in several countries over the past two years. It is hard for me to pick a race, but let's say racing in Indonesia is appealing to me due to the raw, diverse and genuinely awesome natural environment and the hot climate, as the heat doesn't bother me. Moreover, the volcano or mountain descents in Indonesia usually do not have those endless stone steps you find in Hong Kong everywhere.
GR: Tell us about the Grandmaster Quest. Who's looking good to obtain the Grandmaster Shield in 2016 and who are the favourites for the 2016 series win?
KVDV: Well, the question has already been solved! Last week in the Malaysia Eco 100, Aleksis Capili became the first Asia Trail Grandmaster. He is from the Philippines, but is working and living in Thailand, and in the past year he has completed (in kilometers) Borneo TMBT 100, Vietnam Mountain Marathon 70, Clark-Myamit Falls 82, Bromo Tengger Semeru Ultra 100, UTHK 156 and Malaysia Eco 160. That's six races of 70k or more, so he has earned his honourary Grandmaster title and badge featuring 1 star.
GR: Tell us about the star system.
KVDV: When anyone completes ten ultra races, a second star will be added to the badge, and so on until four stars for 20 races. The Grandmaster Quest is a lifetime achievement award that every finisher of ultra races can earn, regardless of how quick he or she runs. For the fast boys and girls, we have the annual points-based championship.
GR: So who is looking good this year for Asia Trail Master champion?
KVDV: Nothing has been decided yet, as the best three results per runner count at the end of the year, but it is clear that anyone who wishes to become the 2016 Asia Trail Master champion will need to get past Manolito Divina from the Philippines in the men's and Tahira Najmunisaa from Malaysia in the women's. Last year, the protagonists had a fantastic tete-a-tete showdown for the title in Bromo Tengger Semeru Ultra, and I think - and hope - that we may see the same final showdown between the best runners at Clark-Myamit Falls this year, because that's the last SuperTrail race of the year and offers 50 bonus points.
GR: Many thanks for explaining Asia Trail Masters, Kris, and we look forward to another great season of great regional trail races. Keep up the great work.